“I just had a couple of moles taken off my back,” our daughter said, when we visited her new apartment in San Francisco last week. “It’s really hard for me to clean off the wound myself — and put the bandage back on. Would you mind doing it, Mom?”
No, of course, I wouldn’t mind. In fact, I was pleased — even flattered — to be asked. But I don’t like blood much. I hoped it wouldn’t be too gory. It would be embarrassing if I tilted over in a faint when I was trying to help.
So, I was prepared, more or less, when our 27-year-old daughter peeled off the bandages and I looked at her back.
Suddenly, standing there, swabbing her back with soap, then water, then vaseline, I was overcome.
I don’t know whether it happens this way to all mothers, but this is how it happened to me. You carry a fetus, then baby, for months, nourishing it with your own widening body. Then, you give birth. You hold your baby. You nurse her. As the weeks and months pass, you and your husband do everything for her. You feed her, bathe her, diaper her. You control her whole world. In fact, you are her whole world.
This closed, tight circle is outgrown slowly, then with increased speed over the passing years. Some years, it felt to me that some of the most important actions my husband and I took were to step back and give our daughter, then her brother, more room. Their worlds expanded far beyond us, from day care to school to overnights to college to other countries.
We were affectionate, but still, we retreated physically. A hug, a kiss, a handsqueeze. That’s all. Your child becomes her own person. She doesn’t need you hovering over her, touching her, pulling her to you. She needs to leave.
I stood behind my grown daughter, marveling at her strong, beautiful back. The wounds were small, with funny black stitches. It wasn’t any blood or gore that overwhelmed me — it was this kaleidoscope of memories, this primal, fierce wave of love and protectiveness and deep pride that I could never adequately describe to anyone. I couldn’t even bear to feel it too long. I had to step back.
I patched my baby up with clean bandages. Then I sent her back out into the world.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)